Essay: Blackberry Winter: A Painted Memoir
[sculptures and paintings by Lenny Lyons Bruno] [2011]

Lenny Lyons Bruno: Paintings and Sculptures

Director, The University Galleries, Texas State University


When considering the ways in which art communicates with us, it is easiest thought about in terms of a linear or circular action.  Through that filter, if a still life painting is the equivalent of a one-way monologue or lecture, then those art works that are non-objective and abstracted can be seen as a conversation—an intimate dialogue between the artist and the viewer that requires investment on the part of both.  In the works of Lenny Lyons Bruno, the paintings not only want to talk with us, they want us to pull up a chair for a long afternoon of storytelling and, perhaps, a cup of tea.  With each foot firmly planted in painting and sculpture, respectively, the work of Lyons Bruno straddles a line between the two, using narrative images and common objects—most in some state of decay—to convey the memories of her impoverished childhood in a West Virginia coal camp.

Though heavily laden with memory and meaning, the paintings are not burdensome.  The painted surfaces are articulated by the layering that we associate with traditional types of craftwork like the very quilts upon which the artist paints.  While they may appear two dimensional upon first viewing, with time each work reveals the intricate textures and topographical nature of the surface that comes from the many layers of gesso and paint that are used to create it.  The beauty of the work is the access point to the activity of understanding; only with time can we start to unravel and separate the works’ formal qualities from the narratives that lie within.  Although the works begin with the stories they tell, they ultimately leave impressions that linger and develop more complex meanings over time.  The pairing of personal images with ordinary, devalued objects is tied to the artist’s invitation to contemplate what it was to live this way.

The objects and material surfaces that Lyons Bruno uses work to set the context and convey passage of time as well as evoke emotional dissonance.  This idea of the artist as alchemist—one who transmutes a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value—is not a new one.  From the moment Marcel Duchamp first elevated a mundane object to the sublime realm of art by exploiting its inherent beauty, he opened the door for artists like Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg—and a host of contemporary artists that followed—to remind us that our personal relationships to objects carry deep meanings and associations.  Lyons Bruno relies on that lineage through her use of found objects and the central roles that she gives them as characters in her painted narratives.  The resulting transformation of the objects into artistic medium in turn allows them to become symbols of the artist’s personal history, which we are compelled to neither dismiss nor forget.

It is difficult to understand what inspires creativity and whether inspiration is imprinted on us genetically. Although not academically trained, Lenny Lyons Bruno has instinctively made art—either in photograph, textile manipulation, painting or sculpture—for most of her life.  It is interesting to note the way in which the universal, compelling drive to create that has been explored by philosophers for centuries is so present in Lyons Bruno’s practice, despite such a seemingly desperate upbringing.  Drawings helped early humans to think symbolically, allowing them to hold the image of an animal in mind while gazing at the lines drawn on the wall that were meant to represent it.  Today psychologists define this ability as working memory and it is not only central to the artist’s practice and her paintings, but is also essential for the viewer if the meaning imbedded there is to be properly processed. There is no decoding here, only association; just like the quilted surface on which she paints, Lenny Lyons Bruno has tirelessly folded, cut and pieced together works that we will continue to wrap ourselves in long after the last knot is tied.


ESSAY: Angela Piehl: Feral Beauty and Opulent Decay
Oklahoma State University Museum of Art  



Director of Exhibitions, The Southwest School of Art, San Antonio, Texas


Angela Piehl is a gatherer. And she reminds us that the impulse to gather—as well as to arrange and order—is intrinsically human.[1] It is this impulse towards collecting information and its connection to human nature that informs not only the source materials for her paintings and drawings but also her creative practice. Each work begins with Piehl’s mining of scientific illustrations; found objects; wallpaper and textile patterns; and lifestyle/design print media. The process continues until the accumulation reaches a critical mass. The resulting abstracted paintings and drawings, layered with rich visual textures, contain allegorical and narrative allusions that address the human condition in a compound structure that gradually moves away from the original source materials. This layering of visual content gives multiple access points through glimpses of recognizable elements, while simultaneously challenging the viewer to relate to the seemingly familiar in new ways. As a result, Piehl’s paintings and drawings provide a hybrid context of elaborately ornate and subtly suggestive compositions through which to consider the relationships between that which is decorative and that which is organic—and what those relationships can mean to us. 

Embedded within the title, Feral Beauty and Opulent Decay, is Piehl’s central focus of luxury, accumulation, and alienation from nature—through the artist’s consideration of gender. This focus provides the context for Piehl’s employment of images and photographs of idealized beauty, both fabricated and natural, and her conglomeration of elaborate yet abstracted elements that result in what she calls an “inherent, suggestive codification for femininity.”[2] Piehl’s reference to organic materials such as flesh, hair, tentacles, eggs, fat, bone, muscle, crystalline structures, and wood—alongside her choices of color, pattern, and textural artifice—produces what she refers to as “feral bouquets”[3] that are at once engaging and seductive, while also repellent and abject. 

Comprised of drawings and paintings that work in concert and yet contrast each other in scale, color, value, temperature, and media, Feral Beauty and Opulent Decay invites the viewer to an active form of looking. In fact, these works demand it. The visual access to Piehl’s work lies in what Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka (1886-1941) theorized regarding the part-to-whole relationship—the whole is other than the sum of its parts.[4] Individual elements that work together to form a larger whole can be perceived as a subsequent and separate entity. Through this perceptual shift, the viewer moves from the whole to process the individually abstracted source material, its coagulation, and the embedded meaning—not only in the material itself, but also Piehl’s intended messaging in her conjoining of the visual content. 

Upon first approach to the gallery, this part-to-whole relationship is immediately observed as the opulence and implied symmetry in the large-scale, meticulously crafted drawings Chandelier (fig. 1) and Shivaree (fig. 2) come into view. Yet, as the viewer moves closer, the perceived whole falls away to reveal the individual parts—pearls and crystal draped on antlers, lush patterned fabrics, and other ornamental imagery reflective of the artist’s copious source materials. Similarly, this same perceptive relationship to the individual elements is also activated in the nearby paintings, Elegy  (fig. 3) and Ingress (fig. 4). ­­It is in the works’ unabashed beauty that the artist’s range and use of reference material—from organic matter to opulent embellishment and synthetic colors—can best be seen as an illustration of her desire to create connections between accumulation and alienation from nature.[5] 

The shifts in scale and medium within the exhibition are designed to challenge the viewer to progress from looking to seeing. Moving from formal considerations of value and temperature to color and scale emphasizes the relationship between the drawings and the neighboring paintings. The same considerations found in the larger works are also reflected in the smaller Cluster (fig. 5) paintings and the more intimate drawings such as Cabochon (fig. 6). As such, the smaller works draw the viewer in for a closer look and more concentrated engagement. Additionally, the layered abstracted imagery results in works that highlight the dualistic nature of the artist’s intent and her hybridization of aesthetic orders: synthetic and organic, flora and fauna, bodily and constructed forms, decoratively abstract and figuratively monstrous. The resulting visual ambiguity is an invitation for the viewer to extend their gaze in order to decipher the source material.

Juxtaposing organic and designed elements is not without historical precedent. Piehl’s contrast of the natural and the decorative shares a conceptual construct with the architectural grotesques of Ancient Rome—rediscovered in the fifteenth century. Also shared is the counterpointed role that nature plays within these fanciful compositions—particularly when contrasted with the fabricated or human form.[6] The historical art form of grotesques used symmetry and embellished architectural details to support figurative elements alongside ornamental and natural references. Contemporary French writer Rémi Astruc asserts that within these formal elements and references three consistent tropes emerge.[7] In Astruc’s theory, these tropes of “doubleness, hybridity, and metamorphosis” are used in society to conceptualize alterityor othernessand change.[8] These tropes can be directly translated to what Piehl calls “the suggestion of a decadent femininity and an absurd opulence,”[9] as well as the gender considerations embedded in the works, resulting from a simultaneous response of uneasiness/repulsion and sympathy/attraction when looking at the hybridized imagery. This simultaneity of emotional response is referred to as the Uncanny Valleyan aesthetic hypothesis that states when the subject viewed is partially recognized as natural and familiar, but not wholly, a dissonance occurs within the viewer’s mind.[10]Therefore, Angela Piehl’s interest in the implicit conflict between the luxuriously decorative (which attracts) and organically corporeal (which repels) illustrates and confirms Astruc’s assertion as well as the Uncanny Valley hypothesis. As a result, the viewer’s connections to the works are informed and controlled by the artist’s emphasis on and contrast of curated yet ultimately ambiguous visual information.

Lastly, the viewer is asked to question preconceived notions about nature and beauty, and acknowledge the complex realizations that such questions can evoke. Through her collecting, classifications, and compositions, Angela Piehl has invited her audience to actively look at and categorize what they see for themselves and to ultimately consider beauty in the repulsive by making natural order out of unnatural chaos.

[1]Angela Piehl, Personal Correspondence, 13 April, 2015. 
[2] Angela Piehl, Personal Correspondence, 13 April, 2015. 
[3] Ibid.
[4] "The Psychology of the Gestalt" in The Journal of Educational Psychology, G. Humphrey, Vol. 15(7), October 1924, 401-412.
[5] From Angela Piehl’s Artist’s Statement.
[6] "The Grotesque" in “Some Main Streams and Tributaries in European Ornament from 1500 to 1750: Part 1,” Peter Ward-Jackson, The Victoria and Albert Museum Bulletin (June 1967) p.75.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] From Angela Piehl’s Artist’s Statement.
[10] “The Uncanny Valley” in IEEE Spectrum, Masahiro Mori, (from, 2012)


Essay: Robert Stuart
[Voices of the Arts magazine, Volume 13, Issue 1] [2004]

Robert Stuart: Paintings

Director, The University Galleries, Texas State University


When attending a lecture by painter Robert Stuart, there is a singular moment when he moves from one body of work to another that is punctuated by an audible gasp from the audience.  This is a line of demarcation between two lives of a singular artist: that of objective realism and the ensuing abstractions that were waiting to emerge.   

Almost a decade ago, I became aware of Stuart’s landscape paintings of the Shenandoah Valley in his native Virginia.  Brilliantly painted, the most striking aspect of these works was the way the artist used objects and surfaces to portray light; the landscapes had such a simple yet sophisticated luminescence that they looked as if they were made by an abstract painter who went outside.  Years later, during a studio visit with a photographer in Virginia, I happened upon some abstract paintings that she was documenting.  These paintings looked as if the work of Agnes Martin, Robert Irwin, Mark Rothko, and Dan Flavin had joined together and borne progeny.  This was new work—a radical and drastic departure from still life and landscape—by the same artist, Robert Stuart.  With the same sensitivity given to his paintings of objective forms, now the subject is purely light: not just in the sense of content, but in the same way that an object is given form on a two-dimensional surface in a still life painting.  It is no surprise that light, itself, is given form in these abstract paintings.  Unlike the static nature of a traditional object oriented composition, this work gives life to what is otherwise ephemeral, thereby alluding to time as a temporal state.  

As an accomplished and established still life and landscape painter, Stuart has made a career of studying the properties of light and its effect on form.  Perhaps the years leading up to this dramatic stylistic change readied him to paint these surfaces that pulsate with color, texture, and yes, light. After years of depicting the objective forms that acted as carriers, the artist began to paint light as strongly and directly that he simply no longer needed representational subject matter.  To fully understand something provides the ability to abstract it.  Stuart’s innate knowledge of light shows in the way he uses contrasting value and color in the figure/ground relationship of the works to create a sense of pictorial space between field and subject—in this case, bands of bright color and/or value contrasting with the subtle texture and color of the field.  Using a pared down aesthetic, the artist is able to employ basic geometric shapes, proportion, and color to make paintings that practically vibrate off the wall.  In addition to color and value contrasts, the artist’s use of wax on the surface allows the light and color to interact in such a way that advances and recedes, simultaneously. 

Although working within a sparse visual vocabulary, Stuart makes works that are neither cold nor distant. Conversely, the works are vaguely and comfortingly familiar. Evoking common forms and familiar shapes, the paintings draw the viewer in, with abstract reference to the objective physical world.  “At times there have been particular correspondences in the natural, phenomenal, and physical world to what I hope for in a painting,” says Stuart.  He goes on to tell a story of walking through the loft of an old barn on his property and noticing the early morning light streaming through the floor boards, resulting in brilliant crevices of light on the interior surface below him.  This, to Stuart, was a metaphor for some sort of transcendent otherworldly awakening.   

Perhaps it is the regularity of spacing of the lines, bands, and geometric forms that provide the familiar infrastructure to which we can relate in these paintings.  A visit to the artist’s studio in historic downtown Staunton, Virginia, reveals how the symmetry of architecture and the built form can be related to Stuart’s paintings.  That idea is nowhere as strong as the view through the artist’s studio to the antique buildings across the street. While the tall rectangular windows glow with the light moving inward, the repetitive aspect of the architectural materials and the negative space between are clearly reminiscent of the band of color and light in the paintings.   

Regardless of the viewer’s specific frame of reference or imposed meaning, the paintings are clearly and ultimately meant to visually please.  Painting’s meaning can be measured in the production of a resonance with one’s feelings and experience, or, as an instigator for those feelings and a response.  One can also experience a kind of beauty that brings a whole and complete joy. That in itself is meaningful and important. Similarly, through the action of painting, the artist experiences the same potential for reaching a state of beauty or fullness and its subsequent resonance.  The result is something that creates movement and response and, in turn, allows for the shared experience—a transcendental conversation between artist and viewer. The significance of resonance, here, is particularly poignant as, in its purest definition, it speaks of a vibration of air in an empty chambersomething that comes through loud and clear in Robert Stuart’s work, both emotionally and physically.